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Fewer Maine Primary Candidates Opt for Clean Election Funding
05/09/2012   Reported By: A.J. Higgins

Much of the attention on the upcoming June 12th primary has been focused on the Democrats and Republicans competing for the chance to succeed retiring U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe. But there are also 40 legislative primaries next month that will set the stage for control of the Maine House and Senate. This year, however, there will be fewer legislative candidates seeking public funding for their races. As A.J. Higgins reports, it's a trend that some lawmakers say could be the beginning of the end for the Maine Clean Election System.

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The numbers tell the story for Maine's Clean Elections program: Four years ago 82 percent of all 151 House candidates were publicly funded. Last year that number dropped to 74 percent, and this year, it's expected to be fall below 60 percent.

"We're seeing a dip this year in the numbers of candidates who are in the Maine Clean Election Act program -- especially on the House side," says Jonathan Wayne, the executive director of the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices that oversees the distribution of Clean Election funds.

Wayne says a federal court ruling that struck the matching funds provision from programs in states like Maine affected some candidates who may have feared they would be outspent by their privately-funded opponents. On top of that, Wayne says the Legislature decreased the amount of funding overall for the program.

"The courts said that we couldn't give out these additional public funds to candidates to keep them on an even playing field with their opponents--that that tended to discouarge some people from spending money to influence the elections," Wayne says. "So the Legislature decided for the 2012 elections that there would be an initial payment for the primary and an initial payment for the general, and those initial payments were five percent less than the program paid out to candidates in 2010."

As the June primary looms, there are an unusually large number of Democratic and Republican primary contests in the House and Senate. And although the number of primary candidates is up, Wayne says fewer are seeking public funding.

"In the past in the primary elections, we've had 65 to 70 percent of the candidates in the primary be publicly funded and this year it's seems to be only 53 percent," Wayne says. "And the larger drop off seems to be in the House Republican candidates than in the House Democratic candidates."

"I think the program is in some danger, I really do," says Rep. Lance Harvell. "It has not taken the money out of politics in the way it was ever supposed to have had."

State Rep. Lance Harvell, a Farmington Republican, says there are numerous reasons why reliance on the Clean Election program is declining among all lawmakers, and Republicans in particular. First, Harvell points to the fact that independent expenditures by both parties circumvent the original intent of the program, which was to keep special interest money out of elections.

Second, he says many Clean Election candidates, such as those running for leadership positions, are permitted to maintain their own Political Action Committee Funds that special interests can contribute to. Beyond that, Harvell says many Republicans just don't think it's an appropriate use of taxpayer money--particularly when there are so many other needs.

"I think that people who get there and actually see some of the cuts and stuff that have to be made begin to think, 'Why should I be taking money from taxpayers to run if we're having to make these sudden cuts?' I mean that's some people," Harvell says.

Just how high the stakes are in this year's legislative cycle can be gauged by the numbers of primary candidates. In the House, there are 17 Democratic primaries, several featuring three-way and four-way contests. There are 14 Republican House primaries. In the Senate, there are seven Democratic primaries and three Republican primaries.

Democratic and Republican leaders agree that the large number of primaries reflect the health of the political process in Maine and an eagerness for citizens to become involved. And with Republicans reclaiming both houses of the Legislature in 2010 for the first time in more than 30 years, there is a strong desire by the GOP to retain that power.

State Sen. Roger Katz, of Augusta, is on the team that's coordinating election strategies for the Senate. "There are some sessions when it's difficult to recruit good people," Katz says. "I think it's the best job in the whole world, but it is somewhat of a personal sacrifice for many people, particularly financially, so to have this much interest in serving in the Legislature I think is great."

Primary voters will go to the polls on June 12.


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